Firehouse Subs Founders Started Broke, Became Franchisers

The two founders of Firehouse Subs, Chris and Robin Sorensen, had less than $100 in their checking accounts when they opened in 1994. Now, these second-generation firefighters have more than 1,000 stores.

Robin Sorensen was only 26 years old when he opened Firehouse Subs' first store with his brother in Jacksonville, Florida. He tells CNBC's Make It that he and his brother both loved to cook and had several ideas for restaurants in the past, but they never had money to open a business. However, they chose to take a risk and open their restaurant anyway. The Sorensen brothers were determined to make their business succeed and did everything possible to make it happen. Robin only took home a couple of hundred dollars a week, pulling in a salary of $15,000 annually to make their business work. And Chris continued working at the fire department so he could work for free for the restaurant. With only one paid employee, Robin and Chris predominantly hired family members also to cut payroll costs.

After seven years in business, Robin and Chris became debt-free. But it wasn't until 2004, ten years after opening their first store, that they both took profits just to pay off both of their homes. Now, Firehouse Subs had revenues of $840 million in 2020, according to Statista, and Restaurant Brands International purchased the company in Quarter 4 of 2021 for $1 billion. The brothers hired restaurant veteran Don Fox to serve in the Chief Executive Officer role in 2003, and they still own the supermajority of stock in the company.

"Focusing on the right things back then, and not focusing on profitability and trying to be rich, really served us well," Robin tells CNBC. "Ultimately, our frugality and discipline with money is one of the main reasons we're still here. It was critical to our survival."